The Spine Line

The Spine Line is a proposed transit line from Downtown Pittsburgh to the Oakland area of Pittsburgh and possibly beyond, with some proposals going as far as Monroeville. It has a long history, apparently starting in 1907 and being serious considered in the 1960s with many starts and stops since then. Several studies have been made. These studies suggest various routes and modes (complete subways, at grade light-rail, bus rapid transit, and various combinations). Here is historical information gathered on the concept up to Spring 2012.


  • 2011 Spine Line Analysis.
    A nice research study done by a student for his thesis at the Washington Alexandria Architecture Center at Virginia Tech. Includes some nice maps of potential Subway systems.
  • Recently there has been some emphasis on Bus Rapid Transit. Here is site explaining (or selling) the concept ( more details) and a student project final report: 2011 Recommendations for Implementing Bus Rapid Transit in Pittsburgh's Oakland-Uptown-Downtown Transit Corridor.
  • 2009 Oakland Transit Connector and Downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland Connector: Project Information Document (July 2009).
    This report promotes a public private partnership and suggests a line that attaches to the existing line at 5th Ave downtown and continue on 5th Ave to the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. It starts underground until the Birmingham Bridge, and then above ground through Oakland (go figure). More information can be found at the page for Onorato's Transportation Action Partnership.
  • 2007 Onorato Transportation Action Team Recommendations (the news release).
    The first item on the list is "Construct Downtown to Oakland LRT". The second item is "Construct Oakland Area Circulator System". The "Team" is a precursor of the "Partnership" in the previous item.
  • 2006 Eastern Corridor Transit Study.
    Detailed Study that Considers transit in a much wider area than just the spine line. Only considers the Center Avenue alignment for the light rail spine line (underground, or alternatives that are part or all at grade). Also considers Bus Rapid Transit. Predicts the cost of an underground line to Oakland would be $1.5Billion, or $2.5 Billion all the way to Wilkinsburg. The whole report in PDF (51 pages).
  • 2003 Eastern Corridor Transit.
    An earlier version of the above study. Also only considers Center Ave alignment but has more detail overall.
  • 1993 Spine Line Corridor Study.
    A comprehensive study of the Spine Line. Suggests three alignments:
  • Along Center Ave to Soho St. then down to Forbes Ave. at Grant St and along Forbes.
  • Colwell St.(two streets north of 5th) to 5th Ave at Grant and along 5th.
  • Along waterfront to Forbes Ave at Grant and along Forbes.
  • Mentions the option of either finishing at CMU or continuing to Frick Park.
  • 1967 Allegheny County Rapid Transit Study
    Perhaps the earliest document describing in some detail the spine line, although referred to as the Oakland Line in the document. The suggested route is basically the same as the Colwell St. proposal in the 1993 study ending at pretty much the same place. It consists of a mix of underground and skyways. Mysteriously the one page with the most detail on the line (IV-4) is missing from the document.
  • Pittsburgh Transportation Bibliography.
    (Dating back to 1935)
  • Pittburgh's trolley history.
    From a 1999 Post Gazette article. According to the history in 1926 Pittsburgh trolley system serviced 396,679,675 passengers. In 1955 it had decreased to 137 million (116 million on street cars and 21 million on buses) and today PAT services about 50 million/year (8 million light rail, and 42 million buses).
  • Cost of various existing Pittsburgh transportation lines:
  • Light Rail System: 26 Miles including downtown.
  • Original system: $522M (1985) = $1.16B (2012)
  • Stage II (Overbrook reconstruction and other improvements): $386M (2004) = $470M (2012)
  • North Shore Connector: $523M (2012)
  • Total: $2.15B (2012)
  • Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway: 9.1 miles total
  • Original system (6.8 miles): $100M (1978) = $350M (2012)
  • Extension (2.3 miles): $69M (2003) = $86M (2012)
  • Total: $436M (2012)
  • West Busway: 5 miles at $320 (2000) = $428 (2012)
  • South Busway: ??
  • News Stories


  • Subway tunnel is hardly a money pit,
    Post Gazette, March 29, 2012.
    Mostly about the NSC (North Side Connector), but mentions the spine line and how it was killed in the 90s.
  • Oakland transit line explored,
    Post Gazette, March 28, 2012.
    Talks about the Onorato's task force and its launching of a "worldwide appeal for private investors willing to develop a Downtown-to-Oakland transit".
  • Groups want to revive light-rail to Oakland,
    Post Gazette, March 16, 2012.
    Talks about a report by the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group titled A Better Way to Go: Meeting America's 21st Century Transportation Challenges with Modern Public Transit. Has a nice summary history of the spine line.
  • Rapid transit seen between Downtown and Oakland.
    Post Gazette, March 30, 2011.
    Discussion of Bus Rapid Transit on the spine-line corridor.
  • Pittsburgh Hopes for Privately Funded Transit Connection to Oakland,
    The Transport Politic, February 24, 2010.
    Asks for private funds in exchange for development rights. Claims the line could serve 100,000 riders a day by 2030. Mentions both the Center and Colwell alignments. Does not even mention an underground option, but a response mentions a Vancouver underground project that cost $159M/mile.
  • 2000s

  • Transportation Key to World-Class Pittsburgh,
    POP City, July 16, 2008.
    Mentions that PAT moves 70 Million people a year, including half the downtown workforce, saving 1.8 Million hours in travel time and $34Million in gas savings. Includes the quote: "Build the Spine Line for Godssakes".
  • Return of the Spine Line?,
    Blog Post on Tales of the 91A, March 22, 2008.
    A somewhat comical history of the spine line, once again putting all blame on its failure on Dunn and Cranmer, but also adding Mike Dawida (the Three Stooges, as the author refers to them).
  • Expansion of Pittsburgh's light-rail system to Oakland remains far off.
    Pittsburgh Business Times, March 3, 2008,
    Talks about the formation of the "Transportation Action Partnership" and its purpose of moving the spine line into reality. Predicts cost at at least $1Billion. Says it is unrealistic to expect full public funding.
  • Lost Tracks: The planned T extension to the North Shore is the last surviving remnant of bigger, better plans,
    City Paper, September 29, 2005.
    In the the context of the NSC, it talks about previous plans for the Spine Line dating back to 1906, and mentions how the project was killed by Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer in 1996, apparently by stacking the Port Authority board.
  • Note large gap in years here. We can refer to these as the It's Dunn years.


  • Spine Line to Oakland is too costly, given the area's other needs.
    Post Gazette, July 10, 1996.
    This is a letter to the editor written by the Chairman of the Port Authority trying to justify the canceling of any future work on the spine line project. It is very defensive. Here is a response.
  • Spine chilling: PAT scraps light rail plan
    continued on page 4.
    Post Gazette, May 8, 1996.
    The title says it all. Includes a quote from the former PAT board chairman : [Dunn and Cranmer] represent a point of view that is wholly suburban
  • Stop and go transit expansion gets another green light.
    Post Gazette, Jan 23, 1995
  • Light rail extension to be costly: Study says 'spine line' would attract riders, cut time, lift revenue,
    Post Gazette, Mar 19, 1991.
    Puts cost at $229M for nor North Side connection, $328M for Oakland along Colwell Street, $445M for Oakland along Center, and $228 for Squirrel Hill extension. If you multiply by 2.25 you get to the actual cost of the NSC, so perhaps we can just multiply them all by 2.25, which puts the Colwell Street segment to Oakland at around $750M.
  • 1980s

  • PAT revises Spine Line plan; study labels it cost-efficient
    Pittsburgh Press, Sep 12, 1985.
  • A backbone for the city.
    Post Gazette, Feb 4, 1983.
  • PAT initiates $100,000 study of spine line.
    Post Gazette, Jan 29, 1983.
  • 1970s

  • Transit Finally on Track.
    Post Gazette, May 9, 1979
    About the South Hills light rail, but also discusses the spine line.
  • Spine Line Transit Plan Cut as Costly.
    Post Gazette, Nov 2, 1977.
    The first round of shutting down the idea.
  • Caliguiri Vows to Revive Spirit of Renewal in City.
    Post Gazette, Apr 12, 1977
    First mention of spine line I could find.
  • Other Recently Built Subway or Light Rail Lines

  • Laval Metro Extension, Montreal (2007).
    Overview of the reasonably recent line extension that came in 7% under budget and two months early. The overall cost was $142M/km ($228M/mile) for the fully underground 5.2km line (same length as downtown to CMU) -- total cost $748 million. It mostly was built using cut and cover, but parts including going under a river were bored (more info). This is a rare success story in subway construction. It was so successful that there are already plans for another extension with two additional stops.
  • Canada Line, Vancouver BC (2009).
    Overview of the reasonably recent line that was built as a public-private partnership. The cost was only about $105M/km ($2B for 19km). About 1/3 is underground and 2/3 above ground, mostly on elevated guideways. Most of the underground portion was constructed using cut and cover under an existing street, although it was bored under two rivers. The ridership is exceeding projections with over 110,000 riders per day.
  • Woodward Light Rail, Detroit (Proposed).
    Technically this is a street car, not a light rail (it runs on tracks built into the road and shared by auto traffic). The proposal is for 3.3 miles and therefore about the same length as the Downtown to CMU trip. It's predicted cost is $137 million. It is funded by a public/private partnership. There are questions about whether it can ever be extended since the travel times on roads are too slow for a commuter line.
  • What if Washington Never Built Metro?
    Talks about the costs and benefits of the DC metro including $212 Billion in real estate value within 1/2 mile of metro stations.
  • Why $1 billion doesn't buy much transit infrastructure anymore
    From the Atlantic Cities Place Matters, Nov 2011.
    Talks about the costs of various projects around the world.
  • US Rail Construction Costs
    From the blog Pedestrian Observations
    Has a list of recent projects with their cost per km. Despite the title of the post, most of the examples are from foreign countries.
  • List of United States light rail systems by ridership (wikipedia)
    Nice summary of ridership for over 30 different light rail systems across the country.
  • General Information on Bus Rapid Transit (Busways)

  • Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit
    An 80 page report from May 2011 by the Institute for Transportation Development Policy. Includes Pittsburgh Busways as one of the studied systems giving it a score of 57 on its scale (the Cleveland Healthline gets 63).
  • A bus by any other name is still ... a train?.
    Discusses the BRT craze and how it has gone too far and is over hyped. Argues that the Silver Line in Boston (referred to as the "Silver Lie") has been mostly a failure. Note, however, that the authors are a light rail advocacy group.
  • BRT creep makes bus rapid transit inferior to rail
    Argues that it is too easy to make shortcuts with BRT and the end result is a substandard system. Gives several examples.
  • Rail Transit vs. "Bus Rapid Transit": Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership.
    What is interesting are the poor Pittsburgh numbers (trips/weekday) which are somewhat surprising in the context of the hype about the Pittsburgh "BRT":
  • South Busway: Projected 35,000, Actual 14,500
  • East Busway: Projected 80,000, Actual 24,500 (2010)
  • West Busway: Projected 50,000, Actual 9,500
  • These numbers are consistent with many other sources so I believe they are reasonably correct. The numbers are low by any standards (e.g. the Boston red line ridership is 226,000 rides/weekday, and the green line 237,000 -- Boston has about double the population of Pittsburgh). Of course there could be many reasons for the low relative ridership, including over hyped original numbers by politicians, population decline, bad management, or simply that BRT is not an optimal solution, or at least the Pittsburgh Busway form of it. Note that the Pittsburgh South Side light rail gets about 29,000 riders per weekday (49,000 estimated), so it is not much better than the East Busway.
  • Photo-Report Pittsburgh West Busway.
    An analysis of the West Busway. It is not very flattering.
  • They only built 5 of the 8 planned miles for the cost of all 8 miles ($320M in 2000 dollars, = $85Million/mile in 2012 dollars).
  • Ridership is much lower than projected: only 9500/weekday, instead of the 50,000 that were forecast.
  • "Bus Rapid Transit" Analysis
    Analysis of over 20 different existing BRT projects. Since this is on a light rail advocacy site, there is surely some negative bias here.
  • BRT: Deserving of of its Poor Reputation?
    A blog from a Pittsburgher comparing BRT to Light Rail.
  • Bus Rapid Transit - Not for New Jersey
  • East Liberty Ridership
    Data on load factors for all lines through East Liberty, including all the busway lines. This claims the total busway ridership is 24,369 for the lines that go through East Liberty.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway.
    A detailed history of the East Busway Extension.
  • Discrimination Suit Against PAT.
    A law suit against PAT claiming the use of cheaper busways in predominantly African American neighborhoods and cleaner more expensive light-rail in white neighborhoods is discriminatory.
  • Cleveland HealthLine BRT.
    Along Euclid Ave in Cleveland. Length 6.8 miles (but only 4 are truly BRT), cost $195M (2008), about 15K riders/weekday, dedicated lanes for 4 miles, automated traffic signals, reduced car lanes from 2 to 1, raised platforms on the first 4 miles, special stations, center lanes, tickets vending machines at stations.
  • Other Information

  • East Liberty Station: Realizing the Potential.
    A 104 page report by Pittsburgh City Planning on improvements to the East Liberty Busway Station and surrounding area.